Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

(I fear that I am not quite experienced enough in literary criticism to do this book justice, because it is rife with symbolism and meaning of which I probably just scratch the surface, but bear with me. Also, this is probably full of spoilers, so feel free to skip to the post scripts)

First, on Vonnegut's writing style: This was my first Vonnegut, so I don't know if his other books are similar, but I must say his prose was mesmerizing (I was going to say hypnotic, and in fact described it to Chris as hypnotic last night, but Jim just used the word to describe the writing style of the last author he reviewed, so I figured I'd change it up a bit). He uses short, direct sentences that in other contexts might be choppy and annoying, but in this book works. At first I found that the page breaks after every few paragraphs, even if there wasn't a scene change, were a little disorienting. After I got used to them, though, I started to feel like they added to the narrative a little bit, for reasons I will explain.

On the story: Kurt Vonnegut tells us the story of the fire bombing of Dresden in World War II through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a fictional chaplain's assistant, but I wonder how much is autobiographical. I do know that, like Pilgrim, Vonnegut was a POW who hid in the meat locker of a slaughterhouse while American bombs completely destroyed Dresden, a mostly non-military target, and killed more than 135,000 people. Taken at face value, Pilgrim is a time traveler, "unstuck from time." The plot follows him mostly through his time as a prisoner, but as he travels to other parts of his life we get to see them, too. We learn about his wife and his plane crash and his children, etc. We go with Pilgrim when he is abducted by aliens and spends several years on the planet of Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants basically explain existence to him. (Pilgrim is not missed, however, because the Tralfamadorians were able to return him to Earth milliseconds after he left, even though they had him in a zoo for years). Tralfamadorians are able to see in four dimensions (time being the fourth), so to them existence is like a photo album, they are able to see all points at once. As a result, death doesn't upset them; when they see a dead guy, they think, "well, sucks for that guy right now, but we also see him when he was alive and happy, and those were good times, so...don't sweat it." They describe each moment like a bug trapped in amber, not part of any flow of time, but distinct and everlasting (which is what I thought the frequent page breaks were meant to represent).

As far as I can tell, Billy Pilgrim is just bat shit crazy. He witnessed unimaginable horrors and can't cope with it, so he invents his time travel and his trip to Tralfamadore as a coping mechanism. As Vonnegut says at one point, "They both found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in war. Rosweater, for instance, had shot a fourteen-year-old fireman, mistaking him for a German soldier. So it goes. And Billy had seen the greatest massacre in European history, which was the fire-bombing of Dresden. So it goes." If everything is always and you can pop in and out of various life experiences, then death and destruction don't seem quite so horrible. The Tralfamadorians advise Pilgrim: "That's one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones."

Vonnegut uses the refrain "so it goes" dozens of times throughout the book, almost every time he mentions death. The mantra attempts to desensitize Pilgrim to the tragedy he has experienced, tries to convince him that everything is both random and pre-determined anyway, so why worry about it? I found this fatalist approach even more interesting after reading the first paragraph of Vonnegut's wikipedia page, which states that he was "one of the most influential humanist writers of the 20th century." I feel like his humanism ultimately comes through, despite Pilgrim's fatalist approach. Many of the deaths described in the book are natural and random, and when you read about Pilgrim being the only person to survive a plane crash and another character being the only one to survive a tank attack, the "so it goes" seems a reasonable to process that information. But sometimes Vonnegut throws you a curveball. In one scene, another prisoner tells Pilgrim about a time when he fed a dog a steak laced with sharp metal spikes (which killed it in a horrible way) as revenge for biting him. After being lulled into a pattern of "oh wells" every time someone dies, this one in particular made my ears prick up. It wasn't destined or random, it was just cruel. What I think Vonnegut was saying is that yeah, sometimes terrible things happen and they can't be helped, you just have to accept them and move on, but there are other things that are wrong and evil (like the bombing of Dresden), and those things can be avoided.

I personally found this book for another reason: the summer after I graduated high school I was traveling in Europe and got to have lunch in Dresden. It is now a beautiful city, not the wasteland that Vonnegut described, but you can still see scorch marks on some of the buildings, which I thought was pretty interesting. Unfortunately I can't find any pictures from my trip. So it goes.

p.s.
He told Billy to encourage people to call him Billy - because it would stick in their memories. It would also make him seem slightly magical, since there weren't any other grown Billys around. It also compelled people to think of him as a friend right away.

p.p.s.
Montana was naked, and so was Billy, of course. He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who'll get one.

2 comments:

Christopher said...

That bit about the penis is actually the strongest memory I have of this book.

Nihil Novum said...

I love this book. I am not a huge fan of Vonnegut overall, but the bit about how Tralfamidorians see time is really fantastic,